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What Is Isaw?

Dan Harkins
By Dan Harkins
Updated May 16, 2024
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The intestines are not the most prized part of the chicken or pig, but that does not mean they are restricted from dietary use. A popular street food in the Philippines is called isaw, which is long strands or thick slices of chicken intestines that are marinaded in oil, ketchup, soy, garlic and some seasonings, then boiled and flame-grilled. This quick snack is often dipped in onion- or chile-infused vinegar just before it is eaten.

Safety is a key consideration when preparing any meat, especially intestines. Cooks regularly turn the large intestines inside-out to clean all surface areas. Then, the strands are placed in a pot of boiling water, which is then infused with salt, pepper, bay leaf and vinegar for about a half-hour, or at least until the intestines can be easily torn. Due to sporadic illnesses, Filipino public health authorities regularly urge street vendors to employ the safest preparation practices. The boiling before grilling of isaw is particularly important to ensure that all food-born pathogens are exterminated even before the skewers reach the coals.

Vendors skewer the intestines in a few different ways. Some cut them into chunks and strand them onto sticks. Others skewer the intestine intact, accordion-style, and then slice them up after the grilling is done. Often, a basting sauce of oil, soy sauce and ketchup is brushed on while the isaw is cooking. Once charred, the barbecued pig or chicken intestines are served with vinegar for dipping and maybe chilis for spiciness.

Filipino street foods are heavy on the entrails and other often-overlooked parts. Isaw is one of a few popular dishes made with intestines, while chicharong bulaklak are pork intestines that are grilled and then deep-fried. The pigs ears are put to use in the grilled balingit. Some even favor chicks or fetal eggs, deep-fried or boiled, respectively. Many of these types of foods are eaten after being dipped in vinegar or rubbed with a broke-open pepper.

Isaw has a reputation for being one of the most popular and cheapest of the Filipino street foods. Many stalls are devoted to making just isaw. These shops are called isawan. According to the Panlasang Pinoy Web site, university students low on cash are particularly drawn to these carts for the cheap and wholesome snacks they provide.

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